Just deserts: Ely (Christina Ricci) and Pete (Casey Affleck) share a moment in a go-nowhere, do-nothing town.
Just deserts: Ely (Christina Ricci) and Pete (Casey Affleck) share a moment in a go-nowhere, do-nothing town.

Get me outta here

For Morgan J. Freeman (a young writer-director, not the heralded actor), comic timing couldn't get any worse -- or better. That's because one of the unhappy teenagers in Freeman's second feature, Desert Blue, is a melancholy girl dressed in moody black who likes to detonate homemade bombs. The Columbine High School massacre and its deadly shooter remain fresh in the public memory, and such imagery is bound to disturb many viewers. On the other hand, the powerful light this talented 27-year-old filmmaker sheds on the adolescent psyche may compensate for the discomfort. While social scientists and other students of alienation try, without much success, to analyze the savage teen factionalism (among other things) that drove two kids over the edge at Columbine, tuned-in moviemakers such as Freeman seem to gain easier access to the secret traumas of adolescence.

The setting of Desert Blue is fictional Baxter, Nevada, population 87, a forgotten flyspeck of a town far out in the desert. The only local "attraction" is a giant ice cream cone plunked down on the sand. There's nothing for kids in Baxter to do but play the video game in the diner, kick up dust with their dune buggies, and brood, half-drunk around a bonfire, about cruel fate. They're a listless and vaguely fatalistic bunch, these children of desolation. "I don't care," one of them says during a conversation about funeral arrangements. "Bury me or burn me -- it doesn't matter."

But even in this broken-down Podunk (it's the way a lot of real-life kids see their hometowns), there's room for a dream or two -- and for some mordant comedy. Blue (Brendan Sexton III) wants to fulfill his late father's fantasy of revivifying poor Baxter with an artificial desert lake and beach, complete with canoes and water slide. Pete (Casey Affleck) hopes to repeat his win in the local desert-vehicle race. Pudgy Cale (Ethan Suplee) wants to be the village deputy. Even the bomb-maker Ely (Christina Ricci) can put a benign spin on her dangerous hobby. The furious rebel in her brags that she's "got the shit to blow up this whole fuckin' town." The immature teenager claims: "It's sort of like a sport -- like skeet shooting." Ely hasn't hurt anyone yet, but she might. Little matter that she's the sheriff's daughter.


Desert Blue

Written and directed by Morgan J. Freeman

Starring Brendan Sexton III, Kate Hudson, Christina Ricci, and John Heard

Opens August 13

Official site

Until a possible disaster hits their town, these lonely, funny kids probably haven't thought much either way about goodness or badness. As it happens, a tank truck bound for a mysterious local soft-drink plant crashes on the highway, and when the driver unexpectedly dies, a scare goes up. Has Baxter been fatally contaminated by toxins? Is everyone done for?

True to form -- that is, the form of desert-town atomic paranoia movies of the 1950s -- the FBI shows up in a pair of ominous black Humvees. At the same time, an L.A. teenager named Skye (Kate Hudson) and her corny college-professor father (John Heard) get stranded in Baxter when the authorities seal the place off. Skye's a budding sitcom actress with plenty of vanities and pretensions, but as the puzzle of the alleged toxic spill deepens, she eventually joins Blue's rustic teen posse and falls for him. They sit and talk and worry about the future in the moonlight, under the aqueduct that rushes water past high-and-dry Baxter to the big city.

Freeman's toxic-spill crisis may be an easy provocation to get everyone rethinking and reconsidering their lives, but what he does best here is penetrate teenagers' complex codes of loyalty and distrust with dead-on accuracy. The kids bark and snap at one another, and Skye's intrusion raises the occasional hackle, but the sense that these kids are all in this thing together is unmistakable. That they are united as much by sarcasm as by affection is a sign of the '90s. That they must be united is a given: It's a cold world out there in the desert.

Before he's done, Freeman generously liberates his kids. Blue comes to terms with his father's recent death. Skye ditches her cell phone and loosens up. Cale gets his deputy's hat. Everybody gets revenge on the head FBI villain. Ely even donates her bombing skills to the fondest dream of a friend.

In short, this modest little comedy ends sweetly. But it never loses its sting. Perhaps because irony is now the dominant mode of social interaction, Skye tells Blue when tragedy has been averted: "I was having a fun time dying with you." In view of Columbine and the possibilities it bespeaks, that's not a very funny line. But in its several startling resonances, it could serve as the slogan for a very uneasy moment in our national life.


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